By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two former U.S. soldiers have been extradited to New York to face charges of plotting to murder a U.S. federal drug agent and informant as part of an international drug smuggling operation, authorities said.
Joseph Manuel Hunter, 48, nicknamed "Rambo," is charged with recruiting a team of former military snipers, including an ex-U.S. Army sergeant and several former soldiers from other countries, to commit the murders on behalf of two Colombian drug cartel leaders.
Those cartel leaders were, in fact, Drug Enforcement Administration informants posing as druglords.
Hunter and Timothy Vamvakias, both former U.S. Army sergeants, and several other suspects were arrested this week and are being transported to New York to face charges that include murder and drug conspiracy, as well as weapons possession.
"The bone-chilling allegations in today's indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement. "The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends."
The DEA informants agreed to pay Hunter and two others $700,000 for the two killings, as well as an additional $100,000 to Hunter "for his leadership role," according to an indictment filed in New York.
The killings were to take place in Liberia, Bharara said at a press conference on Friday.
Hunter and his alleged accomplices - who include Vamvakias, Dennis Gogel and Michael Filter of Germany, and Slawomir Soborski of Poland - were rounded up in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting.
Hunter was arrested in Thailand.
Vamvakias and Gogel were apprehended in Liberia, where they had traveled to commit the murders. Filter and Soborski were arrested in Estonia, where they had gone to "provide other services" to the DEA informants posing as Colombians, Bharara said at a press conference on Friday.
Bharara declined to identify the DEA agent and informant targeted for murder as part of the sting operation.
The indictment charges that Hunter and his team acted as security for cocaine shipments originating in Asia and bound for the U.S.
In late 2012, according to the indictment, Hunter "collected resumes via email for prospective members of the security team."
Earlier this year, Hunter and his team allegedly traveled to an unnamed Asian country to discuss the drug trafficking security work with the two informants they believed to be part of the cartel.
Hunter, Vamvakias and Gogel were recorded discussing plans to commit the contract killings in Liberia, authorities said.
Hunter told the DEA informants that "he himself had previously done 'bonus jobs'" - code for contract killings, and that his team "wanted to do as much 'bonus work' as possible," according to the indictment.
Bharara said that since leaving the U.S. military in 2004, Hunter "has allegedly worked as a contract killer, arranging successfully for the murder of numerous people."
Bharara declined to reveal who Hunter is believed to have murdered, but said he "leapt at the chance to serve the purported drug traffickers" as a hired killer.
"Thanks to the determined, skillful and intrepid efforts of the DEA's Special Operations Division, an international hit team has been neutralized by agents working on four continents."
The DEA's Special Operations Division is a secretive unit within the U.S. Department of Justice that includes representatives of the DEA, FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
In a series of stories published earlier this year, Reuters reported that the DEA's Special Operations Division funneled information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.
Reuters reviewed internal government documents which showed that law enforcement agents have been trained to conceal how such investigations truly begin - to "recreate" the investigative trail to effectively cover up the original source of the information.
DEA officials said the practice is legal and has been in almost daily use since the 1990s. They have said its purpose is to protect sources and methods, not to withhold evidence.
(Additional reporting by John Shiffman and David Ingram; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)